Culture Connection: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Listen in as Malcolm discusses the film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler with Chris and KC Lehman, the performances by the stellar cast, and its depiction of American history. You can follow Malcolm on Twitter for more bites of culture @caliyalie.

For more information about this episode, please call the hotline at (323) 455-4219!

The Civil Rights Legacy of George Romney

It is interesting to note that in America’s first election involving a black president that it is not the president who possesses a family legacy in the Civil Rights Movement, but rather his white opponent, former governor Mitt Romney. In the early 1960’s, relatively few prominent politicians took a bold stance in favor of full integration and equal rights between the races. One of the few who did was Republican Governor George Romney, of Michigan.

At the age of sixteen Mitt Romney was going door to door in Detroit on behalf of his father’s gubernatorial re-election campaign, soliciting support not just for his father but for his father’s pro civil rights agenda. It was a hard sell in many cases. While the Republican Party of the sixties was not necessarily anymore opposed to civil rights than was the Democratic Party, if not a bit less so, there were many segregationists in the GOP and in Michigan who were infuriated at George Romney’s support of the movement, and with some justification; many who had voted for him were unaware of his support for the cause until a picture was published of him marching shoulder to shoulder with Detroit NAACP president Edward Turner and hundreds of other whites and blacks through a suburb of Detroit, protesting housing discrimination. (Martin Luther King, Jr., who encouraged Romney to run for president, led a march the following day which Governor Romney declined to attend only on account of it being the sabbath.) He received angry communications from constituents who had voted for him, calling him a “Judas to the people who voted for you, and a “dead-duck” for re-election in ’64. Anger at Romney however did not only come from voters in Detroit; he also experienced it at the hands of the LDS (Mormon) church, of which he was a respected leader. The church itself was segregated at that time, and at least one prominent leader accused Romney of supporting “vicious legislation” vis-a-viz the 1964 Civil Rights Act that seemed to rebuke the churches teachings on black people. While Romney felt religious duty bound him not to criticize the church publicly, he nevertheless believed in a more liberal interpretation of Mormon doctrine with respect to blacks and pushed for that view within the church (a view that ultimately prevailed upon the churches integration in 1978). In the wider world of politics however he was free to speak more boldly, going as far as to refuse to endorse his party’s nominee, Barry Goldwater, for president in ’64 because, as he told Goldwater himself, he feared his campaign would “make an all-out push for the southern segregationist vote in the south,”.

George Romney did more than pay lip service to the issue of Civil Rights. As Governor he enacted controversial policies that benefited the black community in Michigan, and ultimately across the country, though he never achieved the level of success he desired. Taking office as Governor in 1962 Romney declared: “Michigan’s most urgent human rights problem is racial discrimination,” and then promptly set up the first civil rights commission in Michigan’s history. Later on, as Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary Romney crafted the Fair Housing Act, moving new HUD housing programs to become increasingly desegregated, to the increasing anger of some whites. But politics, especially within the Nixon administration, soured Romney on the ability of Government to achieve significant reforms on behalf of civil rights, and Romney increasingly sought to convince the black community that they could turn to the private sector, to businesses and non-profits, to help solve their problems. But blacks were highly skeptical of this approach, and so Romney in time came to seem naive to the black community, just as his zeal for civil rights in the first place increasingly ostracized him from the growing social conservative base of the Republican Party. He retired from politics in 1973, and enjoyed more satisfaction heading up volunteer organizations as a private citizen. He died in 1995.

George Romney was a champion for civil rights, a man who might have been president, who lost more than he gained politically because of his stand. What, if anything, his legacy tells us about Mitt Romney’s character and his commitment to helping the black community as a President of the United States is of course an open question. But it is worth recognizing that there have been politicians in times gone by who took a stand for social justice in America, and that Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, was one of them.

The Cynicism Behind Voter I.D.

I was watching Al Sharpton on his show Politics Nation on MSNBC the other day. He was showing clips from the civil rights movement, still shots of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other images meant to highlight, in particular, the vicious disenfranchisement wrought upon us back then by Jim Crow and the terrible struggle we had to endure to gain the safeguards for our voting rights finally guaranteed to us by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Powerful. Then he proceeded to tie all this to, and seemingly to equate this terrible persecution with, the current controversy over voter I.D. law requirements being debated in states across this country, laws which according to some could prevent up to 5 million Americans, disproportionately minorities, from casting votes this November.

Come on Al, get real for a moment. Voter I.D. is not Jim Crow revived. We’re not dealing with voter intimidation, poll taxes or literacy tests. It’s nothing like that and to try and draw any type of parallel is, well to me anyway, ridiculous. Having said that, we are dealing with a cynical, election year political tactic being waged by Republicans across this country, and this Republican isn’t afraid to call it what it is.

For those who aren’t familiar the simple background is this: in recent months there has been a push in states across this country (overwhelmingly by Republican lawmakers) to enact voter identification requirements to prevent voter fraud. All that means is that, if your state passes such a law in time for the November election this year, you will probably have to present your drivers license or your state I.D. to be able to cast your ballot. For most people that’s not such a big deal. But not everyone has a state I.D. Some college students, for example, going to school out of state are residents of the state they go to school in but do not have an I.D. issued by that state. Some elderly people who are retired and do not drive have no need of a drivers license and there have already been instances of such people not being able to cast a ballot in states where these laws have gone into effect. But the people who would and will lose the most as a result of these laws are poor people who simply do not have I.D. Such people, disproportionately, are black and Latino Americans and that is what the controversy is all about.

Now some call this voter I.D. push racist. I don’t. As many or more poor white people than minorities will probably be adversely affected by this bill. I do however call it a cynical move by the GOP to gain the upper hand in the elections this November, particularly of course to defeat President Obama. The head of the Justice Department (DOJ), Attorney General Eric Holder (the first black attorney general of the United States), has directed his department to block the implementation of these laws in certain states and has referred to the initiatives as being “a solution in search of a problem.” He’s largely right. There is no evidence of any significant level of voter fraud taking place anywhere in this country, making it rather clear then that the motivation for this legislation is political. And that’s the problem. Truthfully, I have no problem with the proposed laws themselves. There is not much voter fraud going on, but to the extent that there is, voter I.D. would prevent it and that’s a good thing. Moreover, there is no compelling legal argument against it, making the injunction by the DOJ itself rather ridiculous. You need I.D. to do a million other things, why not when it comes to voting? But to do this in an election year, so close to the Presidential and congressional elections particularly, rings of political opportunism more than it does concern for the integrity of the vote. The laws could easily be passed so that they would not take effect until the day after this election, thus ensuring that the maximum amount of people would obtain I.D. in order to vote in the following elections in the states in question. Instead Republicans are content to see thousands and potentially millions not vote at all to give them a leg up in this November.

Having said all this, black people should not complain too much, because laws such as this can only hurt us to the extent to which they capitalize on our own apathy. If you don’t have an I.D. and you care about the rights our parents and grandparents fought for us to have, you need to get one if you live in one of these states. Nobody likes to go to the DMV but this is politics. The Democrats are at least as cynical when they allow illegal immigrants to come freely across our border,distorting the constitution to give people the right to vote who aren’t entitled to it because they know who they’ll vote for. These are the imperfections of our system. But there is no excuse for sitting back and not exercising the rights our people fought and died for just because some politicians decided to make it just a little bit harder to do so.

Defending Black Republicanism (Part 1 of 3)

There is an interesting psychological phenomenon that persists in black politics and in African-American society generally; one that has stubbornly bore down roots since at least the early seventies and beyond. It is a striking manifestation of identity politics that has gone too far for too long, retarding the political, and arguably the socioeconomic, growth of black America. That phenomenon is the near totality of our people’s unyielding devotion to one political party, our correspondingly bitter and intractable opposition to the main alternative,  and the anti-intellectual and, frankly, hurtful dismissiveness with which the large majority of blacks who pay allegiance to one  party treat the small minority who hold with the other. What I am referring to is, of course, the now longstanding black reliance on, and attachment to, the Democratic Party, and our longstanding opposition to, and reviling of, the Republican Party. This, believe it or not, is not a good thing. The potential progress of black America in the twenty-first century will be essentially capped until we outgrow this ideological bigotry.

I say ideological bigotry because that, for far too many black liberals and democrats, is what their opposition to conservatism and Republicans generally, amounts to. You see it expressed in film, stand up comedy and on the street level. Republicans and black Republicans particularly are portrayed as greedy, naive, uncle Toms, etc. That’s no way to characterize people we disagree with. But furthermore this ignores the broader history of the Republican party and the historical relationship it has had with the black community.

Let’s begin with the origins of black animosity towards the Republican party, for which there is a legitimate cause. Only a minority of black people nowadays seem to know or remember the fact that the vast majority of black Americans were Republicans all the way until the late sixties. That ended with the polarizing divisions wrought by the battles of the Civil Rights Movement and then with the adoption of the “Southern Strategy,” a term then popularized by prominent GOP strategist Kevin Phillips, who described it thusly:

“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”

There was then in the late sixties a vast constituency swap, whereupon black Republicans almost en masse became Democrats and southern (mostly middle class) white Democrats became Republicans. Given that this were the case one might be tempted to think that the Republican party must have fought tooth and nail against the Civil Rights Act and the movement towards integration, but the truth is far more mixed. The greatest political opposition to the movement came from southern white Democrats, who would eventually become Republicans. At the same time western, mid-western and northern Democrats like John Kennedy, and some southern Democrats (particularly President Lyndon Johnson) were on the side of racial progress and President Johnson in particular showed great courage in pushing the Civil Rights Act through congress. (Johnson knew that to sign the bill would be to, in his own words, “sign away the south for fifty years,” but he did it anyway.) The support of Democrats like Kennedy, Johnson and others in congress and across the country gives Democrats a viable claim to much of the success of the Civil Rights era. Still, in congress roughly 80% of Republicans voted for passage of the bill in both the House and Senate, as opposed to roughly 60% of Democrats in the House and a little less than 70% in the Senate. The triumph of civil rights was a bipartisan triumph therefore, but in congress there was more unified support for these landmark changes among Republicans than Democrats.

There are other positive things to be said about the Democratic Party and it’s historical relationship to African-Americans. Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice and a champion of civil liberties, was a black Democrat. Adam Clayton Powell, the first black congressman in New York’s history and the first from any northern state outside Illinois since reconstruction, was a Democrat (served 1945-1971). But Martin Luther King, Jr., the single most important figure in the Civil Rights Movement, was a Republican and an active one at that. He endorsed Richard Nixon for the governorship of California in 1964, something that is not widely known. Furthermore, he encouraged the presidential candidacy of the anti-segregationist Republican governor of Michigan, Governor George Romney, who was of course the father of Mitt Romney, ironically the man who is favored to carry the GOP banner against Barack Obama this year.

Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and although some  have cast doubt upon the legacy of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator,” the fact remains that he legally freed the slaves and that he  was always an abolitionist, as most Republicans were. Frederick Douglass, (to whom Lincoln bequeathed his iconic walking stick upon his death), was a Republican and even received a vote in the electoral college for the presidency (obviously the first for a black American). Every black elected politician and appointed official was almost certainly Republican during the reconstruction era. That changed after the Civil Rights Movement reached it’s zenith in the sixties of course, and after that a strong faction of segregationists did emerge in the Republican Party because they came from the Democratic party (invited in by cynical GOP strategists and political elites). Even so, it was Ronald Reagan who signed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day into law, and while he probably did not really wish to do so, then Vice-President George H.W. Bush fought hard behind the scenes to see its passage and ultimately both parties voted for it by wide margins.

Black Americans have always had a home in the Republican Party. Those of us who have remained in it or returned to it should be respected, I feel, for to us it is not just the party of Reagan, but the party of Lincoln, of Douglass, of Booker T. Washington, and of King.

Salvation: For Christians Only? (Part Three of Three)

Can God cast a good man to Hell for not being a Christian? That is to say, not simply a man who does good things out of obligation or expectation, but rather one who acts from the goodness of his heart, a man (or woman) who has never heard of the name Jesus, or perhaps has heard but has not understood His word enough to adopt it as his own, and yet from the goodness of his heart live his life in the way that Christ would have had him live it ? Will a just and loving God send such a person to Hell, or will He who can do no evil judge such a person according to the purity of his heart and the Christ-likeness of His character? I let the Bible the answer:

“For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.” (Romans 2:12-16)

So this the truth: no person with a pure enough heart to keep the Spirit of God’s commands, whether he knows or understands them or not, can be turned away from His eternal kingdom because such a person can only be of that Kingdom. Christ’s own words, as we previously detailed, testify to this fact explicitly, more than once. For indeed, to show the work of God in one’s heart is to show the work of Christ, whether one is baptized in His name or not. For does that righteousness come from the devil? How then could it be any other way?

Having said all this, it is legitimate to ask how one should go about preaching the gospel if the lynchpin of such preaching is not Christ as the only path to salvation. That is, it is a legitimate question, but a flawed one, because Christ, rather the Spirit of Christ, remains man’s only path to salvation. But given that our relationship to God and Christ is a spiritual one, that our walk with God is a spiritual one, our belief in Christ and our walk with God must bear supremely moral and spiritual fruits in our own beings and our own actions. It is therefore the faith in the Love that is the source of these good works and these spiritual fruits within ourselves that we must understand to be the point of our believing in Christ in the first place. In other words, the point of Biblical teaching, when all is said and done, is to teach us how to love God, and even at that, to teach us to love one another as we love ourselves in so doing. The very life of Jesus makes this abundantly clear. As Paul said, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” (Corinthians 11:1) For the outward profession of faith in Christ is only the beginning of the Christian walk with Jesus and if one does not grow beyond that beginning one has never started the journey at all. For to truly be saved is not merely to profess belief, nor is it to believe as a mere matter of fact. Rather it is to embody in all one’s being the teaching’s of Christ and his disciples. Needless to say that is not easy. It requires the whole relinquishing of oneself to God, to the Spirit of love which subdues all feelings of arrogance, bitter or vindictive anger, lust, self-pity, hatred, and perhaps most of all: fear. The great classical philosophers; Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, understood that the true aim of life is to obtain an inner fulfillment which allows one to see the world in a manner unimpeded by the corruptions of our wayward desires and emotions, our flesh in Biblical parlance. Indeed this falls in line with that which the scripture teaches, yet in acknowledging and focusing on God as the spiritual source of such peace scripture gives us a way of focusing on it clearly in our hearts and our minds which makes the gift and instrument of faith the indispensable element in our making ourselves more content, more moral people and for making our world a more peaceful, more moral world.In believing that a spiritual force of love and goodness is the Source of all things, ourselves included, we receive a confidence in the power of that moral force to prevail against all forces that oppose it and truly man needs that faith to persevere into the future in a moral way. So then must we do as Christ taught us:

1.We must love God will all our heart, soul and mind, understanding that God is Himself the Spirit of love as the apostle John shows. To truly be saved in Christ is to love love, acknowledging that God is love. This sincere belief changes the entire way a man looks at the universe and his place in it. All discord can be seen as part of a greater harmony, dissonantly moving towards a harmonious end.

2. We must love our neighbors as we love ourselves. So too must we love our enemies, earnestly praying for them and not out of obligation but from a truly caring heart. To that point, we must know ourselves well enough to realize that we all long to be understood and to be forgiven for our flaws, our imperfections. But because man does have a conscience and because God and the laws of the universe ultimately demand balance in all things, one cannot be inspired to think himself worthy of God’s grace if he does not extend such grace to others.

3. We must forgive others, no matter how many times they sin against us. For grudges poison the world don’t they? But to the degree to which we cannot forgive others is the degree to which there is something for which have not forgiven ourselves because we have not accepted the forgiveness of God. We are not open to it because we hate something within us and that hatred extends itself outward to everyone and everything in which we see something similar. Our outer attitudes reveal the spiritual wounds we hold within.

4. We must not judge others, for the judgment with which we judge is how we shall be judged. Indeed there is a paradox here, for we cannot help but make judgments and have our subjective opinions. But to allow God to judge through us, we judge from the Holy Spirit of God’s love and understanding, understanding therefore that righteousness judgment looks to acknowledge the goodness in a person’s heart and to correct that person’s errors for the sake of that goodness. This sort of judgment (the suppression of our unrighteous, fleshly judgement in favor of the equitable evaluation of God’s love) brings people to Christ in time, for it paves the way for forgiveness.

5. We must sacrifice ourselves for the good of others, indeed not foremost the material good of others, but the spiritual good of others. This thing requires first that one live by the first elements I’ve mentioned, for if one cannot love and forgive others suppressing one’s own personal opinions about them in favor of God’s equanimity one cannot see the good in others for which he should sacrifice himself for. But the service of self-sacrifice was the center piece of Christ’s life, of any true Christian’s life (take Martin Luther King, Jr. as a telling example, and a man who did not believe that God’s eternal glory was reserved for Christians only). For even beyond the written commandments of the Bible we have a living illustration of God’s righteousness in the life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this He saves us, for he shows us a way both to live and die that words alone cannot tell.

Salvation then is a process that consumes the entire walk of a Christian as well as of a non-Christian, and it is for us who are Christians to help others on their walk to salvation by showing them, as Christ showed us, how we come to believe in Love so as to live from Love. For to do so is ultimately to believe in God and to be reborn in Him. It is to not be afraid of the wiles of the devil or the evils of the world, for how can you fear anything when you are confident of the indispensable value of your own person to the universe? How can you fear death when your heart tells you that you have planted the seed of life in the soil of the hereafter, and that you still expect to reap them? So then when Christ tells us that that which we bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven and that which we loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven, He is telling us that it is the sum of our works on this place that will return to us in eternity. When Christ tells us that to those who have faith, more will be given but to those who have not even the little they have will be taken away, He is telling us that the faith which we have that leads us to love earns to the love we are given that leads us to believe. What we reap in this life, as Paul says, we sow in eternity. So though it is indeed the work of God to believe in He whom He has sent, that is only the beginning of that work. For true belief brings with it the Holy Spirit, for it comes of the Spirit., and along with that the fruits of the spirit which make for a truly Holy life. So as we preach Christ we preach the path to such a life. Yet those who do not believe as we do are still punished and are still rewarded for the degree to which they live such a life, for the degree to which they have such faith and such heart to live such a life. And indeed, we already know that there have been many who have not called themselves Christians who have lived more Christ-like a lives than many of those who do. Does God discount their righteousness? Does he ignore the love they bear in their hearts for the Spirit Whom He is? Do they who fulfill the law blasphemy the Holy Spirit?

“Owe no one anything except to lvoe one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,“You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)

Indeed, the whole world would be better served if all were to come to believe in Christ as the very Son and image of God, finding new life within Him. It is to the detriment of all who do not believe His words that they do not, but it so because they must now chase the light of God’s glory with a veil over their eyes. That does not mean of course that they will not find it, only that they must contend with what they do not know, as must we all. But it has never been God’s plan that all should do so in the Christian sense.  Yet we may still share with others who do not believe as do we Christians the grace of the Christian message. And furthermore, we must. Indeed I write none of these words to dissuade those who read them from accepting Christ as the Lord, but rather to clarify the true quality of the God that you, should you not believe, would be accepting so that you might accept Him truly and not falsely, that others will preach Him as He truly His and not as the devil would have us believe. At the end of the day it is up to fate and the Father of the universe as to whether or not their hearts accept it or reject in the day when all our deeds are brought before us, both good and evil. But fate bodes well for all those non-believers who, though not believe, nevertheless uphold the righteous requirements of God’s commandments. For the God of conscience holds us all to account. And again Who is that God but the Love by which He seeks to bring all His children home one day in the Kingdom of Christ the Lord.

The Ascendancy of Black America (Part Four of Four)

I believe that the sun shines brightly on the African American future, just as I ultimately believe that this country’s best days are still ahead of it. I believe in the cliche that the future is what you make it. I believe in the power of belief itself, and that faith in a righteous cause is in time rewarded. Those black American’s who will accept it have before them a righteous cause in which to believe. It is the cause of black nationalism but it is also the cause of black patriotism. It is the reclamation of black culture from the hands of degenerate cultural influences and amoral corporate interests. It is the understanding that, whether we originally chose it or not we have 400 hundred years of blood and sweat invested in this country and are only now coming to understand that we have both the right and the ability to lead it. Barack Obama, whether he remains in office but another one and a half years or another five and a half years, will not be president forever. Let his ascendency not be the end of The Ascendancy of Black America. Let it be but another great step forward on the way to the promised land that King saw long before.

The dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. is the vision that has propelled black America to this fateful moment in time, just as it has guided America towards the fuller realization of the spirit of freedom and equality contained in her founding documents. King’s dream that one day “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” calls us to remember that even as black Americans our ultimate allegiance in this world is to the human race as a whole, recognizing that in God we are one human family. This was the vision of Dr. King and this is the conclusion drawn by our founding ideals as illuminated in the simple words that “all men are created equal.” The election of President Obama was indeed striking proof of the power of these ideals as they have matured and developed throughout our collective American experience, culminating in in the compelling story of a single man who found himself poised to scale the heights of history in an election which justified the faith that her citizens and the world have placed in America as the single greatest beacon of freedom and opportunity on earth. It was therefore easy to think, for a brief moment, that we had come to the promised land that King prophesied from his mountain top. But we have a long way to go before we come to that place.  For King did not pursue a primarily political agenda; though he fought segregation, though he tried to see to it that all Americans, black and white, could have jobs if they were willing to work, and though he strove to turn America away from rash wars waged over seas, he had a higher cause than politics for which he struggled. Neither was his aim primarily social, for although he persevered in the effort to bridge the gaps between whites and blacks and more broadly all people everywhere, he had a higher calling than even this. Martin Luther King, Jr. waged a spiritual battle, against sin itself if you will. He wanted to remind people that there is only one truth, one power and one moral absolute at the end of the day and that is that of love. He wished to return love to the center of America’s consciousness, and to rally the righteous behind it’s banner. But as he said:

“In speaking of love at this point, we are not referring to some sentimental emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. “Love” in this connection means understanding good will…we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming good will for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. When we love on the agape level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does.”

Earlier in this series I briefly mentioned my white Grandfather, saying that he felt my father had committed a disgrace by marrying my mother. But I should clarify, it was not that he himself felt disgraced but rather that he felt, even in the mid-eighties, that the world would see it that way and that my father had committed a grave error by doing what he did. Nevertheless, and though my grandparents may have felt once upon a time that the reality of segregation was something that had to be accepted, I do know that that my Grandfather told my father once once with respect to black people that “they’re smarter than we are. They have to be to survive.” But though the cleverness of black people may derive in large measure from the direness of our historical circumstance, the wisdom of black people has been the hard understanding that in spite of all our wounds, and though they have been received at the hands of a people different from us, there is nevertheless reason to love our oppressors just as there is reason for us, in spite of our long tragedies, to love ourselves.

Now then is the time for us to call upon the instruments of our love, our spirit, our wisdom and our righteousness, to move the world forward. Love has overcome the divide between white and black, so too can understanding defeat the chasm between liberalism and conservatism that was truly the promise of the Obama candidacy. (Martin Luther King, Jr. loved George Wallace and Bull Connor, never disparaging them personally, so do you think we might somehow be righteous enough to do the same for Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin?) Love gave us music and literature and poetry to inspire Americans and people around he world for generations, so too can it inspire artistry and intellect in our own time to beat back the relentless waves of materialism, sexual gratuitousness, cynicism and moral relativism running rampant in our culture and our American society at large. Websites like Black Is are a part of the movement to reclaim our black nobility, our intellectual honesty, and to assert ourselves at the helm of American society. Every poem and every song that a child writes in the name of love and the honor of black women is a step in this direction, a declaration against the false Rap, Hip-Hop and BET culture that says we are better than what you are telling us we are. (Shout out to my girls Watoto from the Nile for really keeping it real. Google it if you don’t know.) Let us understand then that we do not need BET or big record labels to be the arbiters of our cultural expression. You can start a blog, a YouTube channel, a website and communicate a higher level of cultural consciousness to our people in whatever way you are gifted to do so. You can speak out in your church about our moral complacency and urge the people of your community to recognize that they do not have to accept Roc-A-Fella and Bad Boy records as the standard of black art and culture, not even in this time. If you have children, play for them your old Sam Cooke albums, your Motown records. Add some Miles Davis and some Duke Ellington if you have it, and you can always find some Ella Fitzgerald and some Billie Holiday if you look. And by all means, let them hear some Tupac too: let them hear “Mama’s Just a Little Girl,” “Changes,” I Ain’t Mad at You,” and and the many thoughtful and provocative RAP songs that have been and still are being made in some circles. Progress is about winning the future, not living in the past. But we cannot win the future without knowing our past. Soon black people who know their history and who understand their true importance and necessity in America will join hands and stand firm to change the cultural equation, in and beyond black America. We can only live with our ethnic hypocrisy for so long. Every time we look in the mirror, we see a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, who should be a priest of grace and righteousness, but the face we paint before the world is something less. But we are, we are meant to be, a holy tribe with a commission to do right. The opportunity to do so is coming and has come. Black America will take a stand before it has gone.


The Ascendancy of Black America (Part Three of Four)

What is the power of the African-American? What makes us special, unique, or able to contribute anything of great value in the context of America? Is it our artists, our singers, dancers, our authors, our  poets and painters that grant our people an invaluable square on the quilt of this country? Is it our athletes who have broken down walls of separation in every major sport by not only their talent but their tenacity, their toughness of character? Or is it the legacy of black intellectuals and civil rights leaders, of preachers and professors who have been bold enough to stand and to decry the evils of our persecution in the face of the mighty and the wrong? It is indeed Maya Angelou and Sam Cooke. It is Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson. It is W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is all of these of course. Yet our power comes from more than any of these. The seat of our power lies seeded in a place deep within our moral memory and lights our path forward as we try to determine how it is that we as a people will win the future.

Black Americans are a proud people. And sure, we have accomplished much that gives us cause to be proud. And I know that pride may seem to be a virtue, but the truth is many people are proud. The Bible urges us, in the words of Zephaniah, “Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the Lord’s anger.” (Zephaniah 2:3). Believer or non-believer, what the Bible here seeks to tell us is what we African-Americans should from our own experience already know: that it is not pride that is the face of righteousness but humility, and that in those inevitable days which history in its cycles always brings about wherein the deeds of men are placed squarely before the judgment seat of their own consciences, our best defense from the judgment of mankind and our very our own souls is simple innocence. In our own time, we can be innocent again.

Now as I say “we can be innocent again,” I speak as to be heard. But I know that man is never innocent. We must know even as we consider the tragedy of our tribal history that we came here as the children of evil men. We made war on our brothers like evil men, as did the Native Americans even after the nations of Europe established themselves on their shores. We fell into slavery at the hands of evil men. We were sold into slavery by the hands of evil men, into to the hands of men whose wickedness was driven not only by  vendetta-less greed, but a dark and subconscious fear of everything they did not understand. And as we know, fear bubbles over into hatred and covers the land when the spirit of scorn marries profitability. Still it remains true that our mothers and fathers reaped much evil in the grounds of Africa before her soils gave them up. Just as the fathers of God’s tribe sold their youngest brother into slavery, so our brothers in Africa once sold us as Joseph into Egypt. Yet like Joseph we through our misery have gained an understanding of the price of freedom that informs us both as to how it is obtained in a hostile land, as well as how it is cultivated with people vastly different from ourselves. The answer is that we like Joseph must love our enemies as Joseph loved the king of Egypt, transcending their spiteful fear. We must love one another, coming together in what is most excellent about us, our culture and our values. Only then can we rise up and speak to America in one mighty voice in declaration of what is wrong and what is right.

Today our country is paralyzed in the twin grips of a broken political system and a broadly degenerating culture. In the first instance, the people who dominate our media and our government are so invested in exploiting their own differences, whether for money or political gamesmanship, that they bring all progress this nation could make on the problems that it faces to a screeching halt. On the other, we find that the dysfunction in our politics is mirrored by the vast fragmentation of the American people themselves. In a nation where a vast and ever heterogeneous people section themselves off according to subcultures, to ever narrowing musical and cinematic tastes, to ever more particular forms of news media, and to ever drifting standards of moral conduct, the less we are able to come together as a people in times of crisis. This problem exists for black America as much as it does for the rest of the nation. But in our case we are better positioned to overcome these symptoms of disintegration.

First however we must recognize the peculiar nature of the cancers that lie within the black American community. Yes, we understand the daunting challenges represented in our high unemployment, our high imprisonment rate, our rate of births outside of wedlock. But these problems themselves could be more effectively challenged if black America herself came together on what values she stands for. We embrace a hip-hop culture, a reality t.v. culture and a culture of materialism that prevents us from uniting as a cohesive moral force in this country. It is not that I have any problem with Hip-Hop or reality t.v. in and of themselves. There are always some things that are good to be found, (if Hip Hop were more about real love and substance in the Common and Talib Kweli variety and less about gratuitousness, and if there were actual values to be discerned in shows like “Flavor of Love” or “Basketball Wives,” I would be all for them). But the fact is that there is little nourishing substance in the art of the black community today, a community which has long reaped from the most fertile soil of this country’s great artists. Our music, our shows and our films may still make money. But little enough do they edify the soul. We need to think about the implications of that fact.

Now you might think that I am wrong, or least simplistic in placing so much significance on the impact of certain types of figures in our culture. Pardon me if I sound a little like Bill Cosby, for I do largely sympathize with the no none-sense style criticism’s he himself fielded so much criticism for voicing against our contemporary black culture. But the only partially justified indignities of Professor Michael Eric Dyson and others on behalf of our contemporary black culture aside, the source of Mr. Cosby’s righteous, albeit sometimes condescending, anger and disappointment is that he well remembers a time in this country’s history when even though the chips were stacked against us we could largely unite around the positivity of our art and our culture. (That now somewhat iconic episode of Aaron McGruder’s controversial cartoon The Boondocks wherein he brings Martin Luther King Jr. out of a forty year coma to see what has become of black America, pointedly if stingingly throws in our faces the extent to which we have sunk into a cultural perversion that serves us neither politically or socially.)

There are people in our communities of course who do not want to hear such talk. Some people like Professor Dyson are quick to point out, and rightly so, that there is a myriad of structural obstacles that still vie against black America’s equal  acquisition of the American dream. Even still, can those who might call themselves advocates of our cultural status quo suggest with a straight face that our culture sustains us now in the face of adversity as it did for our enslaved ancestors? Does it nurture us in the way that the stirring, primal and majestic melodies of our “negro  spirituals” provided hope and solace for those enduring the the cruel malice of the slave master’s whip? Does our culture today provide for the moral center of gravity upon which a Dr. King as well as a Malcolm X could stand; two men who both rejected materialism, who were both intolerant towards profane speech, who upheld a standard of black manhood which itself could only abide within it a high standard of reverence for black womanhood? Is their legacy reflected in the music of Lil’ Wayne and of Jay Z, for the most part? Are the values we teach in our churches reflected in the values imparted by the lyrical sentiments of Rick Ross or Rihanna? Do we uphold the standard of respect and admiration we should have for our women in these songs and videos of these artists, particularly when Black Entertainment Television is willing to show us these images over and over again but does not cover the deaths of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King at the time that they happen? I speak here of the vast trends of our culture. Surely I could think of a couple positive songs that Snoop Dogg has written, but I can’t think of a single song Marvin Gaye ever sang that was demeaning to women or disrespectful to anyone. The image we construct of ourselves in our culture, that we accept of ourselves, is wholly unbefitting a great people. But it’s so easy to accept it. That is why those among us who are willing to must band together on a higher plane of cultural observance. One which upholds the higher trends of our history and which cares not to appease the rest.

I am called to remember W.E.B. Du Bois’s belief that Afro-America could only uplift itself if “the advance guard of the race,” pursued a cultural awakening within the black community.  (W.E.B. Du Bois labeled those blacks who would take up this charge, perhaps a bit snobbishly, as the “talented tenth,”) It was this conviction on the part of W.E.B. Du Bois and other prominent black artists and intellectuals including the NAACP, which prompted the direct engineering of the Harlem Renaissance, which really did elevate both black and white America’s view of the negro people. So did black operatic performance, black drama, poetry, literature and Jazz find their first major platform from which to leap into the imagination of the country at large. From this conscientious attempt to change the nation through high art did we get Langston Hughes, Bill Robinson and even Duke Ellington and these artists and many others of the time largely paved the way for every great black actor, singer and author who would come after.  Art was the vehicle by which black America reached out across racial lines because in art and literature we were able to speak a language of the heart that was defiant of our differences. What language do we speak now with our artistry of materialism, sexual gratuity, disrespect and violence? Even if we do bring people together with these, what do we bring people together for?

Dr. King described the movement he led as a spiritual movement, one in which agape love and goodwill for mankind was recognized as the central element of their striving.  In this is the ultimate show of humility. In this is the long-suffering self-sacrifice that I know some determined African-Americans will embody as they set the moral compass for this country in the 21rst century. Yet we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves to enduring the bitterness of those black people, those white people, and all those cynical voices so automatically arrayed against those who would labor to lift our consciousness to a higher state of mind. In this we make the path straight for the ultimate liberation of black America, which is the ultimate liberation of America herself. Those who carry this burden are the sons and daughters of slave heroes and martyrs. We are the Day Breakers, in the words of Renaissance  poet Arna Bontemps. Non-violent resisters of a decadent social order. But even so:

“We are not come to wage a strife,

With swords upon this hill,

It is not wise to waste the life

Against a stubborn will.

Yet would we die as some have done.

Beating a way for the rising sun…”

The Ascendancy of Black America (Part Two of Four)

What does it mean to be an American? I suppose it would mean, or should mean at least, that one stands for liberty, for equal opportunity, and the right of all peoples to have a say in the governing system that oversees their existence. In this, we as black Americans are Americans like any other. But to be an African American does make one the heir of  a unique history and a powerful legacy that runs through the heart of the overall American experience. It is a history that gives us strength, but only in proportion to the degree to which we know it and embrace it. In my opinion therefore, it is important for us to claim this legacy knowing that ours is an American legacy. We, as much as the whites who brought us here, built this country. We, man for man, woman for woman, have helped to shape it by our endurance and our innovation as much as  European Americans. Our struggle has been different from theirs. Indeed, our struggle has been against them, to a significant degree. Yet our pains followed us here from Africa as well, sold into the hands of one group of slave owners by slave owners whose colors were our own. As such we were forced to start over, in a way that perhaps no people has ever had to before. Indeed, we are still starting over. In the last fifty years we have called ourselves negro, black, African-American, then Nigga with an “a” because, (I suppose), that makes a difference, and indeed some black people will take exception to any of these labels because as a whole people we have still not agreed upon who precisely we are. No, not after all this time. Part of the reason for this, I’ve decided, is because we are still uncertain as to whether or not we with our tormented history at the hands of the mighty in this country should really consider ourselves American at all. The answer to this question is that we should because we are, and that our Americanism is more than just a technicality. Our experience has colored the American experience, our culture lies at the heart of America’s culture, and our minds claim great shares in the authorship of America’s ideals as they’ve been further defined through the many generations succeeding the moment of this nations founding. But all of that is for not if we don’t see ourselves as Americans.

Though I was never ignorant of the struggles of African-Americans in this country, I was raised by both my white father and my black mother to think of myself as an American, and to be proud of that fact. That’s why, one day in the seventh grade, I was more than a little shocked when, after we we’re all asked to stand for the pledge of allegiance, one of the black girls in my class pointedly refused. Our teacher asked why she refused and she said, “why should I? This is the country that enslaved me, that wouldn’t let my people use the same bathroom or go to the same schools as white people. Why the hell should I pledge allegiance to that?” Though she wasn’t talking to me I vividly remember feeling hurt by her words. “We’re all in the same schools now,” I thought. Still, her anger struck me and I wondered, was I naive to love this country? Later in my life, and after having argued the case for black American patriotism many times, many ways, I heard another man artfully put in words what I had long understood and had long tried to explain to those black friends of mine who wanted still to hold tightly to their anger towards this country.

When Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was shaken by the uproar over the anti-American tirade of Pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church in Chicago,(then Senator Obama’s longtime pastor), Barack Obama delivered a speech in Philadelphia to address the issue. In this speech he said a thing that sounded curious to many people, that didn’t satisfy many of his critics, but which I understood perfectly well. His words were as follows:

“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love.”

Many critics of the president’s felt this to be not but an artful alibi for suffering the anti-American rhetoric of a radical religious figure, something that should have disqualified any candidate seeking the presidency from obtaining that office. But as a black and as a (if you will) mulatto myself, I recognized both sides of the coin which he described. For many of the people I love most in my life, black people of intelligence and integrity, have disparaged America in my presence in similar terms, something I have often cringed at. Yet how can I be angry at them for reacting to a pain that didn’t end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act? How can I judge them for expressing the bitterness that still trickles into our hearts as African-Americans from the time of slavery to now? I need inform no black person with the slightest bit of awareness of our circumstance of the statistics: we are the poorest people in the nation. We are the most undereducated people in the nation. We are the most imprisoned, the most murdered, and the latter by our own. We are self-hating so why would we not hate the country that left us this legacy of poverty, that actively sought to turn us against each other, destroying our hearts and minds and all that in the name of God? Yet hatred and distrust is not the only dynamic that exists between white and black in our society. For while we can bare witness to the prejudice of whites directed towards us throughout our history, we can also see that the power of love and God has also been present in the midst of our American confusion. How else could Barack Obama’s grandmother love him as she did in spite of the fear she may occasionally of felt towards black men? How could I myself have come to be so loved by my own white grandparents in spite of their segregationist tendencies, in spite of the fact that at the time my grandfather learned of my father’s marriage to my mother he angrily felt that my father had committed a disgrace? But love transcended these fading lines of color, both for Senator Obama and myself, and through the painful process of time for America herself to a great degree. So then did Barack Obama identify the mistaken cynicism of Jeremiah Wright and the many blacks who share his point of view regarding America, saying:

“The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress had been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen — is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope — the audacity to hope — for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

Some countries never change. Throughout history, many nations have not emerged from their tribal conflicts but have burned to the ground in such fires. America however has changed. Not enough of course, but enough to where we whose faith is not so great as a warrior like Martin Luther King, Jr. can too say that we have glimpsed the mountain top of which he spoke. We must recognize the moment we’ve come to as black people, a moment that allows for us to take the lead in rescuing our country from itself, a moment when our nation and our children white and black need us most. For today our national peril is not so dissimilar from what we faced back in the 1960’s, except that today the roots of our divisions are not-primarily-racial, but rather we suffer from an ideological and a cultural divide that prevents us both from solving problems in our government and coming together as a people. With respect to these near insurmountable problems they cannot be solved unless the lessons of the African-American experience are applied and our special position on the societal spectrum utilized. How will we do this? By digging deep into the soil of our pain to raise the flower of our faith as a people, which once made us the moral leaders of a nation. We, the African-American people, have the power to move hearts and minds because of who we are and what we’ve been through, and in this potential lies our power to lift ourselves out of our own tragic circumstances in the process. We who have healed from the wounds of generations long persecution must now be the delivers of healing for an injured nation and our injured brothers and sisters who struggle to see the power that they have. In this is the Christian promise of triumph and reconciliation of which King wrote when he penned these words that are as relevant to our time and mission as they were to his: “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our condition.”

Black America, we have a choice to make…